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Rep. Omar, alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders, releases student-debt cancellation bill

Omar’s portion of the package directs the Department of Education to cancel all student loans taken out since 1965 within 180 days of the bill being signed.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, center, shown with Rep. Pramila Jayapal, left, and Rep. Ilhan Omar, right, during a Facebook Live question and answer session on Monday.
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders

Rep. Ilhan Omar released legislation on Monday that would completely cancel upwards of $1.6 trillion in student debt.

Omar released her bill, the Student Debt Cancellation Act of 2019, as part of a package with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington), two other prominent members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

“I stand before you on behalf of 45 million Americans,” Omar said in front of the Capitol on Monday. “45 million people who feel they can’t purchase their first home. 45 million people who feel like they can’t start a family. 45 million people who have dreams of opening up a business or have dreams of public service, but are held back by a mountain of debt.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) also spoke in favor of the legislation, as did Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

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Jayapal will introduce a companion bill in the House that would make public college free, and Sanders will introduce a bill in the Senate with both components as the newest version of his College for All Act. 

The authors of the package suggest that it would cost $2.2 trillion over a decade and be paid for by a tax of 0.5 percent on stock trades, a 0.1 percent fee on bonds, and a .0005 percent fee on derivatives. Sanders’ office has suggested that the tax could bring in $2.4 trillion over 10 years, and potentially pay for other initiatives as well. The Congressional Budget Office, which typically reviews the cost of legislation when a committee approves a bill, has not yet produced an analysis of the tax revenue potentially raised by the bill or the costs associated with it.

The bill, and the package as a whole, follows through on Omar’s campaign rhetoric — she ran in 2018 in part on tuition-free and debt-free two-and four-year public colleges and universities; an expansion of Federal Pell grants, which are used to cover education expenses; and the cancellation of all student debt (both private and federal loans).

Omar’s portion of the package directs the Department of Education to cancel all student loans taken out since 1965 within 180 days of the bill being signed. It also grants the Education and Treasury departments the ability to temporarily purchase and then cancel all private student loans.

Even Omar, along with 44 Democrats and 24 Republicans, still has student loans to pay off, according to Roll Call. “I am part of the 45 million people who are shackled with the burdens of student debt,” Omar recently told Ana Marie Cox in an interview. “And what that does, really, is stops prosperity for all of us.”

Presidential proposals

The package of bills, fronted by Sanders, comes just days before the first Democratic presidential debates. It draws a stark contrast between the Vermont senator and his colleagues, taking things a step further than what both Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, proposed in April and what candidate Julián Castro proposed in May.

Warren’s plan, which will be released in the coming weeks as a bill in both chambers by Warren and House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, would make all public colleges in the U.S. free and eliminate student loan debt of millions of Americans — but not all Americans. The plan would allow households making less than $100,000 to receive a $50,000 debt cancellation, with all households making under $250,000 able to receive some amount of cancelation. Her plan would be paid for with a 2 percent tax on wealth above $50 million and a 1 percent tax on wealth over $1 billion.

Castro, former San Antonio mayor and secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has proposed a plan that would offer partial loan forgiveness for some of those who receive public assistance benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Medicaid.

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The schism between Sander’s plan and what Warren and Castro are offering is clear: Sanders’ package erases all student debt, including student debt held by the wealthy, while Warren’s plan pares that back a bit and Castro’s pares that back even more. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, also running for president, has called student loan forgiveness unrealistic.

“You may ask, ‘Why full cancellation? What about the people who can pay off their debt?’” Omar asked rhetorically on Monday.

“Well, let me say this: The children of Donald Trump aren’t taking out student loans. Canceling student debt is a problem of the poor and the middle class, not of the rich,” she said.

“So rather than making exceptions, let’s end this crisis entirely once and for all.”